Editing: How not to “waltz out … in your underwear”

“There are two typos of people in this world: those who can edit, and those who can’t.” —Jarod Kintz

For once, today, I have no great issue in mind, no point to make. I was thinking about editing, about being both writer and editor and therefore not taking sides, one against the other; I was remembering having posted here some quotations about writing and thought it was time for a counterbalance.

There are, after all, two types (typos?) of editors: line, copy, or proofreading editors and the big-picture kind—substantive editors, senior editors, commissioning editors, whatever title they go by. Both are needed in publishing. Most editors specialize in one sort of work or the other, though plenty of us can do both.

Most quotations about editing are about the second kind. That’s because the writers most likely to be quoted are authors, who are more concerned with substantive editing than with line or copy editing. Maybe their eyes are too blurred with tears from the first to be able to see the second.

  • “Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” —Patricia Fuller

Oh, so true. You can be done—I won’t say writing is never complete—but what you write always benefits from a going over, even if it’s only an email.

  • “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” —Shannon Hale

Exactly. Just get something on the page. I’ve learned to go for the big point and leave blanks for individual words if they don’t come with the flow. I can always fill them in later—from a thesaurus if necessary. But losing the butterfly, that would be a problem.

  • “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” —Stephen King

The difference between getting ideas out and honing them to say what you mean in every word.

  • “Editing might be a bloody trade, but knives aren’t the exclusive property of butchers. Surgeons use them too.” —Blake Morrison

That’s the kind of editor you want to have.

  • “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we.’ ” —Mark Twain

Mark Twain. Funny man.

  • “Editors are still the world’s readers. And thus the eyes of the world.” —Betsy Lerner

Gatekeepers, like it or not. Some like it, and some sure don’t.

  • “The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, ‘How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?’ and avoid ‘How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?’ ” —James Thurber

Both sides of me agree fully.

  • “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs / is making a chore for the reader who reads.” —Dr. Seuss

So true! Or, even pithier(!), “Omit needless words.” Thank you, Strunk and White.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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